Mathison: When Reformed Theology Is Adapted To Enlightenment Presuppositions It Withers And Dies

In other words, if we want to know why there are so many Reformed theological giants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and comparatively few afterwards, a large part of it has to do with the later theologians adopting various forms of Enlightenment philosophy and rejecting the pre-Enlightenment philosophical context. When Reformed theology is adapted to Enlightenment philosophical presuppositions, it withers and dies.

Our philosophical presuppositions affect our understanding of the most basic principles of reality and knowledge. Most readers of Reformed theology today have grown up imbibing post-Enlightenment philosophical principles without even being aware of it because it’s the very intellectual air we breathe. This easily leads to a misunderstanding of traditional Reformed doctrines if we read those doctrines through post-Enlightenment lenses. More seriously, many contemporary Reformed theologians have consciously or unconsciously adopted one version or another of post-Enlightenment philosophy. Post-Enlightenment philosophy has an enormous impact on our understanding of God, man, sin, everything.

When a contemporary Reformed theologian who has adopted one form or another of post-Enlightenment philosophy also subscribes to a Reformed confession, all of which were written by theologians who thought within a pre-Enlightenment philosophical context, there will inevitably be internal conflict. The temptation to radically revise or reject the confessional teaching will be ever-present. Such radical revision and rejection of confessionally Reformed doctrine has already begun to occur. We see this most clearly in the writings of contemporary Reformed theologians who reject the doctrine of God taught in the Reformed confessions (e.g., WCF, ch. 2). Read more»

Keith Mathison | “Important Contexts for Understanding Reformed Theology” | Apr 11, 2022


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  1. It’s important to point out the presuppositions in this post’s essay, and their entailments.

    The analysis given of the Reformed Orthodoxy of the 16th through 17th Centuries in this essay is the basic Hegelian view of intellectual history, that what is stated by a movement is so reactive to what was previously stated, that it won’t be well understand without understanding it, which in turn, won’t be well understood if what was previously stated is not understood better, which in turn … which in turn, ….

    The problem, which may occur in varying degrees in specific writings, especially ones that only use or refute previous systems, which in turn do the same, indeed would have an infinite regress, unless there is biblical revelation. Calvin, in the “Prefatory Address to King Francis” mentioned in this essay, mentions this feature of the Word of God, in refuting the accusation against Protestantism in the 16th Century, that previously accepted systems don’t say what Calvin said (they said). His answer is that the said previously accepted systems contradict themselves at many points (he lists many many of them!), and that compared to Scripture, they are the novelty of their times as well.

    The famous line is “God’s Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty [the fallacy that what’s new is not true]. God’s Word gives all theology a better basis than the Hegelian pointing out of previous systems. Previous systems are helpful to understand, but whether our understanding of them is so bound to them as here cautioned, is a statement that has to be … shown! (If the author were right, it would also have to be compared to previous versions of its own idea, ad infinitum … we’d never get anywhere!)

    • Larry,

      Putting things in context is not inherently Hegelian.

      Are you proposing to defund church history departments? Your argument seems to say that all we really need to know is the Bible.

      I beg to differ.

      If they do close the church history dept at my school can I come live with you?

  2. Dr. Clark didn’t I say “previous systems are helpful to understand?” 😉 But the author thinks that “We have to learn about ancient Near Eastern history, geography, culture, and practices in order to understand what the biblical authors are talking about.” This is a quantity argument, not an either-or. Let us learn about ancient Near Eastern history, geography, culture, and practices in order to _better_ understand what the biblical authors are talking about.

    As for living with me, you and friends already do so in heart, depending on research like the above.

    • Larry,

      You did not intend to kill church history but, were we to follow your advice, it would be the death of church history.

      Of course we need to know about the Ancient Near East and first-century Greco-Roman culture in order to understand Scripture well. Yes, certainly, the Spirit is free to operate through the Word as he will and he often does. I was brought to faith despite my near complete ignorance of the Scriptures and the cultures in which they were given but my understanding of Scripture has been greatly enriched by the study of those cultures.

      The study of the original contexts of Scripture is one of the many benefits of the Renaissance and it became a Reformation practice too. I understand that you’re not opposed to it but perhaps we do not value these things to the same degree? Perhaps this is what you meant by “quantity argument”?

      We must heartily eschew biblicism, which has done great damage to the historic Reformation/evangelical faith. It is the harbor of rationalism and will, if left unchecked, destroy the ecumenical faith. Bibicism is a cancer that must be treated with very strong medicine.

  3. Interesting. He is not really putting historical, philosophical, and philosophical contexts on the same plane. With respect to the first and third, he is merely saying they need to be understood. But with respect to the second, he is saying it needs to be embraced. That is to say, the loss of our ability to do theology in the modern era is proportional to our having dispensed with Christian Aristotelianism. I tend to agree.

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